Fighting Sin with a New Identity
“This feels so compulsive!” he complained. Tom feels like he is always fighting sin. He fights against a tendency to desire and pursue sexual pleasure from men. He believes in Jesus and has seen significant changes in the direction of his life. But his same-sex attraction did not magically go away when he trusted in Christ. His faith is in crisis, “Maybe they’re right; this is just who I am.”
What do we have to offer someone like Tom? Does the gospel have an answer to this crisis, the crisis of continually fighting sin? Yes. And a vital part of that gospel answer is what theologians call indwelling sin. Why would I bring up sin to someone in a faith crisis, especially one involving same-sex attraction? Because the Bible’s teaching on indwelling sin connects the gospel to our deepest struggles.
The Universality of Sin
Scripture teaches that we are all sinners; all who share in the human nature represented in Adam share in the corruption of sin (Romans 5:12; Ecclesiastes 7:20). But more than that, each of us is sinful in every part of us (Rom. 3:10-19; 8:7). We are whole people, with bodies, minds, wills, and affections, and it is as whole people that we are corrupted by sin. At the deepest level, what the Bible calls the heart, we recognize in ourselves a tendency towards sin (Matthew 15:19; Jeremiah 17:19).
This tendency has a corrupting influence on our thinking, our emotions, and even our physiology. This sinful leaning (what theologians call original sin) is behind whatever sin acts we commit (what theologians call actual sin). The result: sin feels natural to us.
And this is rather unconscious and spontaneous in real life. We fall into the same kinds of behavior over and over despite a desire to stop. A mature Christian faith comes to the humble self-appraisal that behind all our actions, mixed in with all our feelings, appetites, and urges, is a continual tendency towards sin.
Here’s Tom’s dilemma and ours: this sinful tendency doesn’t disappear when we become Christians. How are we to understand this? What does it mean for Tom, and us, when we were taught that faith in Christ gives us victory over sin?
Here we turn to the teaching of Paul in Romans 7, from which the term, indwelling sin, originates. But first we need a view of the context in which he brings this idea up.
Good News about the Universe and You
In the chapters leading up to Romans 7, Paul lays out a tale of two humanities, the first being “in Adam,” and the second being “in Christ.” In Adam describes our natural state, corrupted by sin, condemned by the law, bound for death. Paul often uses the shorthand, “the flesh” to refer to this.
A mature Christian faith comes to the humble self-appraisal that behind all our actions, mixed in with all our feelings, appetites, and urges, is a continual tendency towards sin.
But who Christ is, and what he did, changes everything—literally, everything—all of reality, including human nature. Christ takes upon himself the flesh of Adam, and in that flesh he dies. Though without sin or sinful tendency, Jesus fulfills the sentence of death that is on sinful humanity. Then, he is raised from the dead. And here is the key—it is not just that Jesus came back to life. Rather, he is resurrected with a new kind of life, an immortal, eternal, powerful life. He is declared to be righteous and therefore given the eternal life that from the beginning was promised to righteous humanity.
And this resurrection life which Christ was given is nothing less than the first installment of God’s plan to re-create the whole universe into a glorious and unspeakably beautiful new reality! Paul’s main point? We, who by faith are united to Christ, have our true identity in that new reality. Paul’s way of saying this is that we have died with Christ and were raised with Christ (Rom 6:1-11).
A Startling Implication
Next, Paul takes this new reality in Christ idea into our real-life struggles. In the early portion of Romans 7 (vs. 7-12), he is explaining that the law of God must be considered good, even though it produces death in us. It’s not the law’s fault, but ours; it is our persistent tendency to break the law that forces the law to prescribe death.
Then, in verse 17, he relates our tendency to break the law to our new identity in Christ in a startling way, “…now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”
How in the world can he say such a thing? What does he mean? The answer is not that he is arguing for some sort of psychological dissociation. It is not anything in our psychology that accounts for this new “me.”
What Paul is asserting is that there is something new now; there is a new “me” even while the experience of the sinful tendency remains. In other words, something has happened that has redefined the Christian’s true identity separate from the sinful tendency he experiences.
It is the new reality, the new humanity every Christian has that has objectively come into existence with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and which defines us if we are united to him. That is why the conclusion of Paul’s argument is, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).
Why does this matter to Tom who remains troubled by his persistent tendency to pursue intimacy with men?
Why does it matter to the Christian husband troubled by his persistent tendency to use his eyes and mind to sexually enjoy women other than his wife; to the church elder dogged by his tendency to feel self-righteous contempt for others; to the teenage son battling his tendency to resist and oppose parental love and wisdom? And the list goes on.
What Paul is asserting is that there is something new now; there is a new “me” even while the experience of the sinful tendency remains.
Here is why it matters. Who doesn’t struggle with the troubling resiliency of sinful feelings? Who doesn’t get discouraged at the unrelenting battle against our tendency to sin?
The answer is not that you can, by your own effort and with the right therapy, remove your tendency towards sin; this will lead you to despair. The answer is not that you should come to peace with your tendency towards sin, call it a part of you, and identify with it; this leaves you without hope and without God. The answer is not to say that true Christians no longer experience the pull of a sinful human nature; this is unbiblical and contrary to your experience and leaves you confused and desperate.
The answer is this: Jesus has borne our sin and our tendency to sin, died with and for it, and has been resurrected, inaugurating a whole new reality which shapes our hope for the future and defines us in the present. The continued experience of the tendency to sin is to be expected in this life. But that experience, for the believer, is only the “sin living in me”; it is not a part of who I am for all eternity. Who I am is defined by the resurrection life of Christ. This is not a small thing. It is the gospel. It is everything.
The gospel answer of union with Christ is the only answer that doesn’t disappoint! This is your new identity!
And as it turns out, living out of your new identity in Christ is the only way to make progress against sin. But that’s for another post…